Monthly Archives: April 2009

Science Wednesday: The Biofuels Challenge—Searching for Sustainable Fuels for Our Growing Transportation Needs

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Mary Ann Curran is a senior research chemical engineer in the Sustainable Technology Division at EPA’s National Risk Management Laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio. She leads the Agency’s Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Research program. She conducts research on LCA methodology and application, focusing on biofuels and nanotechnology.

image of author standing in front of buildingLiving and working in the heart of the corn belt, I am continually confronted with the promotion of corn ethanol as the green solution to gasoline. As a researcher in Life Cycle Assessment, however, I know there is a lot more to the story.

Although biofuel energy is renewable, there is some controversy that it is not sustainable due to the harvesting of biomass and the byproducts produced during combustion. With ever evolving technologies and choices in feedstock, biofuels can vary enormously in the type and intensity of environmental harm they may cause. Biofuels must be viewed in the proper perspective.

There is no single replacement to gasoline or diesel that will completely satisfy our need for transportation fuels or settle our concerns of global warming and dwindling oil supplies, but biofuels can make a significant contribution. It’s likely that solutions will be regional ones, depending on what biomass is locally available.

Research is needed to look for better biomass feedstocks and better ways to convert them to bioethanol and biodiesel. Efficiency and decreased demand through conservation must also be part of the solution. Whatever choices we make, they are sure to have far-reaching effects. The global discourse that will certainly continue should not lead us to a biofuel solution that in the end is more environmentally harmful than sucking crude oil out of the ground and cooking it.

I recently ventured far outside my native Ohio to attend the World Biofuels Markets Conference held in Brussels. The Conference started with a presentation by Sir Bob Geldof (most well-known for co-organizing the 1985 Live Aid concert). Sir Bob cautioned that in our enthusiasm surrounding the potential for expanding the world’s use of biofuels, we need to proceed in a smart way “with the competing criteria for sustainability brought into the mix.” I like that.

To learn more about biofuels, I recommend listening to a presentation by Dr. Steve A Kay, UCSD, recorded on November 3, 2008, entitled Biofuels: Hype or Hope.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Climate for Action: Put Your Old Cell Phones to Good Use

About the Author: Michelle Gugger graduated from Rutgers University in 2008. She is currently spending a year of service at EPA’s Region 3 Office in Philadelphia, PA as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

Cell phones are, on average, only used for 1 ½ years before they are replaced. However, only 10 percent of our replaced cell phones are actually recycled each year. According to the EPA, most people are not recycling their old cell phones because they are unsure of what they should do with them. For this reason, many people either save or throw out their old phones.

Fortunately, for the many of us looking to get rid of our old phones, recyclers have been able to make things easy for us. Many organizations will take our old cell phones and pay us for them. There are also many organizations that promise to help others if we donate our old cell phones to them. Here are a couple of the websites that will use our donated phones to benefit others:Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer

  • The Collective Good website allows you to donate your phones to charities. Additionally, they promise to plant a tree for every box of cell phones they receive from you.
  • Donate your cell phones to American soldiers and you can help connect them with their families and friends overseas.
  • GRC Recycling is a website that will use your donated cell phones to support many charitable non-profit organizations.

Also visit http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/partnerships/plugin/cellphone/cell-recycling-locations.htm for lists of additional recyclers.

By donating your old cell phones to these or similar organizations, you will not only help a lot of people, but you will be able to help the environment too. 150 million cell phones are taken out of service each year, if Americans recycled just 2/3 of those cell phones, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 630,667 tons of CO2 and save enough energy to power more than 194,000 U.S. homes for a year. Donating your old cell phones is one easy way that we can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save energy. Informing your friends of where they can recycle their old cell phones or starting a collection at your school are both easy things that you can do to become a climate ambassador. I know that you probably have a lot of other great recycling ideas. What do you do with your old cell phones? Is there something that can be done at your school or in your community? Let us know your ideas on how we can reduce the waste we create from constantly replacing our cell phones. Also, check out what other things you can do to become a climate ambassador.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Making an Easy Call

About the author: Jeff Maurer manages Web content and does communications work for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

National Cell Phone Recycling Week is here April 6-12! I’m sure you already knew that – you’ve probably already carved a Cell Phone Recycling Week-O-Lantern and have bought a bunch of Cell Phone Recycling Week fireworks. What’s that? You haven’t? In that case, let me suggest a few ways to celebrate National Cell Phone Recycling Week that will make this the best National Cell Phone Recycling Week ever!

Recycle or donate your old cell phone and accessories at one of the events planned by our Plug in to eCycling partners. Some of the biggest names in telecommunications – including AT&T, Samsung, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless – are introducing a series of in-store promotions, contests, and giveaways as part of Cell Phone Recycling Week. The partners will provide in-store and online recycling opportunities for consumers, so recycling your cell phone is easier than ever!

Of course, you don’t need to recycle your old cell phone at one of these special events – just be sure to recycle it! Cell phones contain precious metals, copper, and plastics, all of which require energy to mine and manufacture. Recycling these materials not only conserves resources; it also prevents greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and water pollution. If all of the 100 million cell phones ready for end of life management in the U.S. were recycled, we would save enough energy to power more than 18,500 U.S. households for a year!

Use your current phone to call your parents and have them recycle or donate their old cell phones. I know for a fact that my mom has a couple old cell phones – many the size of a brick – collecting dust in a kitchen drawer. I think I’ll give her a call and let her know how easy it is to recycle her old cell phones.

In order to calm any fears Mom has about data theft, I’ll send her our cell phone recycling flyer (PDF) (1 pg, 433K, about PDF), which includes information about how to clear data from your phone before you donate. I’ll also let her know about free data-erasing tools that are available online.Link to EPA's External Link Disclaimer

That’s how I plan to celebrate, anyway – if you feel like singing Cell Phone Recycling Week carols or marching in a Cell Phone Recycling Week parade, don’t let me stop you.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Pregunta de la Semana: ¿Qué hace con su viejo teléfono celular?

En español: Cada semana hacemos una pregunta relacionada al medio ambiente. Por favor comparta con nosotros sus pensamientos y comentarios. Siéntase en libertad de responder a comentarios anteriores o plantear nuevas ideas. Preguntas previas.

Efectos electrónicos como teléfonos celulares pueden ser reciclados para reutilizar materiales valiosos y mantener sustancias peligrosas fuera del medio ambiente. Del 6 al 12 de abril se celebra la Semana de Reciclaje de Teléfonos Celulares.

¿Qué hace con su viejo teléfono celular?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Notebook: Radiation Emergency Response – From the Field

About the author: Gregg Dempsey is an EPA Radiological Emergency Response Team commander and has been with EPA more than 21 years. His job involves being an internal consultant to EPA on radiation issues and being a field response person for radiation emergencies.

image of author pointing to flowchartIf you’ve ever worried about some of the strange new terms that have been in the media since September 11, 2001, like ‘dirty bomb’, ‘radiation dispersal device’ and ‘improvised nuclear device’, you’re not alone. I worry about them too. But my worry is probably a little different than yours; I am part of a group of people who might have to monitor and cleanup the radiation from these types of events.

EPA deals with small radiation problems across the country all the time. They range from transportation accidents to cleanup at abandoned facilities. We work well with our state and local counterparts, and other Federal agencies to get the job done and remove dangerous radiation from our environment.

The smaller problems turn out to be mostly local issues, but they provide valuable lessons for larger accidents and incidents. You learn just how complicated measuring radiation can be, and how complicated it is to determine when you must act and when you might not need to act. Everyone agrees that high levels of radiation exposure are dangerous. It’s the lower levels that spark a huge debate. The debate ranges from questions such as ‘is my health at risk?’, ‘do we leave it here or must we clean it up?’ or ‘are these low levels still a danger?’ Depending on who you talk to, the answers are quite different. In my job, I try to help answer these questions.

I am unfortunately fortunate; I’ve been to and worked at a vast number of radiation cleanup sites across the United States, and I’ve participated in so many emergency response exercises that I’ve lost count. I’ve also been up close and personal at the Chernobyl accident site in Ukraine several times, and I have seen the devastation of wide spread contamination in the environment and how that accident affected its citizens. I try to bring that experience back to EPA.

The Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT), of which I am a member, is one of many specialized technical teams in EPA. I’m often asked to provide help and advice on radiation issues in the field. That is, how to prevent, measure, clean up and protect people from needless radiation exposure. We train a lot, we maintain a good response capability, and we help where we can.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Aging and Environmental Impacts

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

I’m lucky to have elderly parents in relatively good health. Recently, I took them for their routine medical tests and they passed them with flying colors. But, in my mother’s case there was one test result that was somewhat surprising. After the good news regarding her cholesterol and sugar levels, he said “…everything is fine, but you’re slightly dehydrated…” But, why? My mother confessed, “I’m simply not thirsty. I have to force myself to drink water.”

In fact, not too long ago I had translated a fact sheet for EPA’s Aging Initiative which dealt with the issue of water and other environmental impacts on adults in their golden years. The fact is that the elderly may be at a greater risk of dehydration because as they age they actually lose the thirst sensation. They do not feel the same urge to drink as often as when they were younger. Furthermore, some of the medications they are taking for other health conditions may increase the risk of dehydration. So, I had to actually explain to her that her lack of thirst was actually part of the process of aging and required special attention.

On the other hand, long term exposure to environmental contaminants in drinking water and recreational activities may further compromise the health of an adult of advanced years. For example, long-term exposure to lead may contribute to high blood pressure as well as memory and concentration problems, among other ailments. Air pollutants may aggravate lung diseases in the elderly, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.

So, while we encourage the adults of advanced years to engage in outdoor activities as much as possible, it is wise to consult the Air Quality Index before going out and follow public notices on drinking water to take precautions as necessary.

You may find additional EPA resources which have been translated into 15 languages to help us protect this important segment of the population.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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El envejecimiento y los impactos ambientales

Sobre la autor: Lina M. F. Younes ha trabajado en la EPA desde el 2002 y está a cargo del Grupo de Trabajo sobre Comunicaciones Multilingües. Como periodista, dirigió la oficina en Washington de dos periódicos puertorriqueños y ha laborado en varias agencias gubernamentales.

Tengo la suerte de que mis padres todavía gozan de buena salud para ser personas de edad avanzada. Recientemente, los llevé a sus pruebas médicas de rutina y todos los resultados fueron favorables. Sin embargo, en el caso de mi madre, uno de los resultados fue motivo de cierta preocupación. Después de las buenas nuevas de que su colesterol y azúcar, el médico dijo “….todo está bien, pero está levemente deshidratada…” ¿Qué cómo? Mi madre confesó, “simplemente no me da sed, tengo que hacer un esfuerzo para beber agua”.

De hecho, hace un tiempo atrás, traduje una hoja informativa para la Iniciativa de EPA para los Ancianos que trataba sobre el tema del agua y otros impactos ambientales en los adultos de los años dorados. La realidad es que los ancianos tienen mayores riesgos de deshidratación porque con el pasar de los años se pierde el sentido de sed. Simplemente no sienten el deseo de beber como cuando eran jóvenes. Además, algunos de los medicamentos que suelen tomar por condiciones que le afectan la salud a esa edad podrían aumentar sus riesgos de deshidratación. Le tuve que explicar a mi madre que esa falta de sed era parte del proceso de envejecer y requiere atención especial.

Por otra parte, la exposición a largo plazo de contaminantes ambientales en el agua potable y actividades de recreo podrían afectar adversamente la salud de un adulto de edad avanzada. Por ejemplo, la exposición a largo plazo al plomo puede contribuir a la alta presión sanguínea, puede afectar la memoria o problemas de concentración y otros padecimientos. Los contaminantes atmosféricos pueden agravar la salud de los pulmones de los ancianos particularmente en el caso de la enfermedad crónica obstructiva pulmonar (COPD, por sus siglas en inglés) o el asma.

Mientras alentamos a los adultos de edad avanzada a participar en actividades al aire libre lo más posible, es prudente consultar el Índice de Calidad de Aire antes de salir y también seguir las notificaciones de agua potable para tomar las precauciones necesarias.

También ofrecemos recursos adicionales de EPA que hemos traducido en 15 idiomas para ayudar a proteger este importante segmento de nuestra población.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Year of Science – Do you know what energy resource you get your electricity from? Have you looked into switching to a "green" alternative?

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

For each month in 2009, the Year of Science—we will pose a question related to science. Please let us know your thoughts as comments, and feel free to respond to earlier comments, or post new ideas.

The Year of Science theme for April is Energy Resources.

Do you know what energy resource you get your electricity from? Have you looked into switching to a “green” alternative?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Heavy Up?

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the science writer-editor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and the Science Wednesday Editor.

Coming home on New Year’s Eve this year we noticed a “squishing” sensation underfoot as we walked across the carpet in the downstairs playroom. A big, soggy wet spot had mysteriously formed in a place well away from any obvious source of water. Yuck. I pulled up a big swath of carpet to reveal a considerable puddle on the concrete floor beneath.

New Year’s celebration over.

One week, and a hefty plumbing bill later, the mysterious source water was revealed: a steel pipe behind the kitchen wall upstairs had rotted out.

Since we had to take the walls down anyway, we decided it was time to update the 1970s-style kitchen. This week our contractor led me into the basement. “You’re out of space,” he explained, pointing to where a neat circle of clean, new wires coming from the kitchen met the old fuse boxes. He gently informed me it was time for me to make yet another decision.

image of electrical circuit panel boxes on wallI had two options: (1) replace the fuse boxes with a circuit breaker with more lines available, or (2) “heavy up,” in which the electrician would also essentially double the flow of electricity that could come into the house, from 100 amps to 200 amps.

Apparently, sometime between when my house was built and the time the kitchen pipe failed, the standard for electricity changed. Today’s homes are typically built with a minimum capacity of 200 amps, so they can easily handle modern loads from clothes dryers, central air conditioning, home offices full of computers and other electronics, various chargers for cell phone batteries and the like, and mega television screens.

It seems like a safe bet that my family and I will want more juice flowing into our home at some point. Doing the heavy up now would allow me to expand in the future, and I’d get a discount by doing the work now instead of essentially repeating some of it later.

Then I got to thinking about this month’s Year of Science Theme: energy resources. Will the current emphasis on conservation, efficiency, and the need to develop new, clean alternative sources of energy lead us in a new direction?

Perhaps by the time the kitchen needs its next overhaul, the future owner will have a good laugh about how the previous owner once thought they needed the capacity to have some 200 amps of electricity flow into the house.

Now that’s something to celebrate.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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